Palette Toners

Palette toners by Fotospeed, distributed by Luminos.

There are those who say that there really isn't any reason, anymore, to go into the darkroom to tone prints. After all, you can sit in front of the computer and change color balance, alter brightness and contrast, and bend curves to get all kinds of weird and wonderful effects. But they aren't like the weird and wonderful effects you can get with "real" toners like the Palette kit from Fotospeed/Luminos. Nor, to my mind, can a computer deliver the kind of satisfaction that you can get from making a proper print, watching the toning take place, and pulling it out of the toner at just the right moment. Also, there's an element of chance in "real" toning, which I have never seen in computer toning. Sometimes, the results are a disappointment, but other times you get results that are better than you could have dreamed.

Palette toners are metal based toners, but they are different from most of the other toners on the market. They come as a kit of four different colors, intended primarily for multiple toning effects. While each toner can be used on its own, it's when you try them for dual toning and split-toning that you can get the most wonderful effects.

The kit includes blue (iron), red (copper), vanadium yellow and titanium yellow, plus an activator and an intensifier. Before you start, you need five or six trays, some rubber gloves, a box of common table salt, and optionally some hypo (sodium thiosulphate).

Mixing is simple. Dilute each toner with water at 1+9. Then add a small amount of activator, about 1+40. For example, if you want to make up a liter of working solution, use 100ml of toner, 900ml of water, and 25ml of activator. However, you don't really need to make up a full liter at once. I found that with 8x10" prints 500ml (actually 512ml) was adequate and that it was still working even after I had toned 36 prints. If you cut the volume of chemicals, don't worry about the accuracy of 12.5ml of activator; 12ml or 13ml will work equally well in 500ml of solution. Activator, incidentally, is not the same thing as intensifier, which also comes with the kit. I shall come back to the intensifier later.

Titanium yellow gives a gold color, ranging to orange. It bleaches the image, so you need to overprint (print darker) by 1/2 stop or more.
Photos © 1999, Frances E. Schultz, All Rights Reserved

Mix each color and put it in a clean tray. That requires four trays. The fifth tray is for a saline solution, which is used for clearing the highlights. The proportion is not awfully critical, about two full tablespoons to a liter of water. It is more important to keep this solution fresh, changing it every few prints. The sixth tray, which is optional, is used for a 20 percent hypo solution (200 gm hypo in 1 liter of water--1 liter of water weighs 1kg). You don't have to use hypo for all of your toned prints, but it can be used instead of the salt solution to clear highlights and also to manipulate some of the effects, especially with the red toner. We will come back to that later.

The best way to get accustomed to these toners is to use scrap prints to see what happens. Although the effects are predicable on a general level, the final look will come down to the way you print and the way you choose to tone. Of course, you could be very scientific about it and print the same image at the same density and check every possible combination. This would mean you would need at least 18 prints. Then you could adjust the densities and start again.

Toning isn't really a scientific process though. Toners, by their very nature, change as you tone. Two identical prints, toned one right after the other, won't be identical any more because the toner will have changed slightly. Toning is much more predictable qualitatively than quantitatively and anyone who tells you different should be regarded with suspicion. What I have given here is a general, qualitative guide to what happens.

If you have used other blue (iron) or red (copper) toners, then you won't find the ones in the Palette kit very different--as long as you use them alone. That, as I have said, is the key. You have a total of four different toners available and using them together is where the fascination lies.

Titanium yellow gives you a bright orangey-yellow, a sort of marigold color, when it is used alone. It also tends to bleach the print back quite a lot, so overprint (make the print darker) by half a stop or even more.

Vanadium yellow used alone gives you a bright yellow. It seemed just the right effect for this lighted shop window in Daytona Beach.

Vanadium yellow, when used alone, gives you a bright, butter yellow. Like titanium yellow, it tends to bleach the print somewhat, though not as much. Vanadium yellow is also hard to judge, at least initially, because the toned portion of the print doesn't actually turn bright yellow until it is washed. After a few prints you can judge it pretty accurately though, just by what has happened to the density of the print.

In the case of the other toners what you see is more or less what you get. Agitate the tray gently, watching the print closely until you like the effect that you see. The change in tone generally starts to occur within 30 sec. You can pull the print at any time; it is dependent only on your artistic vision. There are few if any fixed rules when it comes to toning.

After a print is toned, wash it briefly (about 30 sec), then put it in the saline solution until you see the highlights clear. That will probably take another 30 sec to a minute. When the highlights are clear, wash RC prints for two minutes or fiber-base prints for 10 minutes. The red toner usually leaves some residue, which can dull the finished print. This is quite easy to get rid of during the final washing. Remove the print from the wash after about a minute and rub it firmly with a J-cloth or some other soft fabric. An old T-shirt or even cotton balls will work. Make sure that there is a flat, firm surface underneath the print though. If you rub the print while it is in a ribbed tray, you can leave stripes. Finish washing the print, then dry it in the usual way.

Once you have seen the effects you can get with individual toners, you can start to experiment with split-toning, which is the real reason for these toners. The most conventional and predictable split comes from using red followed by blue or blue followed by red. When you split-tone, what should happen is that the highlights take up the first color and the shadows take up the second color. The mid-tones take up both toners to varying degrees. This is the "crossover effect."

Split-toning depends on toning part of the silver image, the highlights, in the first toner, and then another part, the shadows, in the second toner. Obviously, the degree of toning in the first toner will affect the amount of silver available to be toned by in the second toner.

To begin with, try one minute in the first toner. After toning, wash the print for 30 sec, clear the highlights as described, and then wash thoroughly as described earlier. Once the washing is complete, immerse the print in the second toner and watch carefully as you agitate the tray. When you like the effect, pull the print and repeat the washing sequence. Then dry it normally.

The blue toner is very dominant and the longer you leave a print in the blue, the more the blue will overcome any other color. This means that you can lose the crossover effects if you leave the print in the blue for too long. As soon as you see the effect you want, pull the print. It probably won't be improved by more time in the toner and there is no way to retrieve an effect once it has passed, although you might come close to duplicating it if you have kept notes.

I rather rashly used the words "conventional" and "predictable" in connection with red/blue toning, even though I had already said that no toning is ever fully predictable. What I meant was that split-toning with red and blue toners is conventional and predicable--when you compare it to using the yellow toners.

On most papers, if you split-tone using either of the yellow toners and then blue, you will generally get green. Crossover effects, when they occur, will run from yellow through green to blue depending on the combination of toners and the time you leave them in the toners. Titanium yellow, followed by blue or red, gives a rather more pictorial effect than the somewhat abstract effect you get with vanadium yellow when followed by blue or red.

This is because (according to Fotospeed) the vanadium yellow partially seals the gelatin when it is used, preventing the darker tones from taking up the second toner. "Seal" is a somewhat unclear term; I suspect it may harden the gelatin and inhibit uptake of the second toner or there may be some sort of slow to diffuse reaction product. Whatever it is, the effect looks rather like a color solarization.

The combination of vanadium yellow and blue is particularly interesting. You can't necessarily judge exactly what you are going to get until the print is dry. My picture of the City of Sonora sign looked as though I had a brown and pale blue image while it was in the blue toner. After it was washed and dried, it turned out to be a mint-green and gold split, with a partial "solarization" of the dark branches.

Just experimenting with the four toners and their possibilities can keep you busy for hours, but there are some more tricks you can do. To begin with, the kit contains an intensifier which you can use with the blue and red toners. This is added to the working solution in the same proportion as the activator (12ml per 500ml or 25ml per liter). Because (fairly obviously) the intensifier cannot be removed, it is best to experiment without it first, then add it to the working solution to see how it changes the effects. Or make up two batches, one with, one without.

Another trick is redevelopment. If you don't like an effect, simply put the print back into your regular print developer and the toning will disappear. Rewash (you don't need to refix). Then start over again. If you want to partially redevelop, use very diluted developer. Toning and partially redeveloping can change the effects of a given toner or combination of toners. Just remember to wash the print in between each bath. Also remember that the emulsion is very delicate when you do this sort of repeated manipulation and will scratch easily, so treat your prints with great care.

I haven't yet mentioned the hypo. This can be used instead of the salt solution for clearing highlights. Wash the print for 30 sec, bathe it in hypo for one minute, then complete the washing. The highlights will clear very well, but if you think you might want to redevelop, stick to the saline solution. The hypo can remove delicate highlight detail which won't come back in the developer. Of course, this could be used for special effects, too.

Hypo can also be used to manipulate the colors you get with the red toner. Tone the print as usual, wash it for 30 sec, and clear the highlights in hypo for one minute. Wash the print thoroughly and then repeat the process. I found that this gave me a more or less coral color, rather than the pink color I got when I cleared the highlights with the saline solution.

Some people find that the hypo also affects the shadow areas and hardens the gelatin differentially so that they get the "solarization" effect, similar to the one described earlier for vanadium yellow. I haven't yet had this happen, which may be something to do with the very hard, chalky water in our area. Then again, it may not. I could go on experimenting indefinitely (and enjoyably) for days--and so could you. As I am constantly reminded, photography owes at least as much to alchemy as to chemistry-- and Palette toners are a wonderful bit of alchemy.

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